Curiosity, Music and Mentors Led Nowicki to Science

By Duncan Dodson

“The only reason I got into the program I wanted to was because I was a pretty good low brass player—I’m actually sure of it!”

Stephen Nowicki, Dean and Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, chuckles as he recounts his journey from early scientific beginnings to his most recent research. As part of Duke BioCoRE program, prominent Duke Scientists are asked to answer the question, “Why am I a scientist?”

Nowicki talk picture

Nowicki explains his most recent research with swamp sparrows and phonemes, the smallest derivative of vocal communication, at Love Auditorium January 23, 2015.

Nowicki started his answer to that question on January 23 with a picture of a dissected—well more like massacred—frog, commenting that he never thought he liked science because of his high school science courses that were not well-taught.

“All I remember from that course was dissecting a frog, and not knowing what I was supposed to get out of it.” This led him to pursue a music major at Tufts University. It was Tufts’ equivalent of Duke’s Trinity requirements in a natural science field that led to an ironic turn of events—quickly picking up a biology double major.

“I had some friends that said ‘Oh you should take this biology course,’ and I did and it changed my life, because it was really well taught,” he said. From there, his mentor at Tufts reached out to a colleague, the head of a competitive graduate neurobiology program at Cornell, Tom Eisner. Eisner mentioned to Nowicki that he was looking to start an amateur orchestra at Cornell;  Nowicki responded that he could play lower brass, sparking Eisner’s interest, and ultimately, according to Nowicki, his acceptance into the program.

Flash forward about 30 years. Nowicki has an impressive career in the field of neurobiology. His most recent publication challenges the neurological methods in which swamp sparrows process the subtle differences of phonemes, the smallest derivatives of vocal communication, in other birds’ songs.

Steve Nowicki

Nowicki’s tweet (@SteveNowickiDU) January 13, 2015. “Back where I belong at last!” Nowicki is a regular in the Cameron pep band who has always combined his passion for music with a curiosity for science.

Nowicki spent a majority of his talk relating entertaining anecdotes about his work with “Robobird,” a titanium swamp sparrow used to test these theories.

He repeatedly stressed the importance of curiosity, which led him to discover subjects he was passionate about. He discussed the process of instilling the same kind of curiosity in three undergraduate engineers through the two-and-a-half year research project. “[The first year engineers] didn’t have a clue, but they were not deterred. When they started to understand the problem they just kept digging in and digging in.”

When asked why he is a scientist, Nowicki responded, “I was lucky to run into mentors who revealed me to aspects of science that interested me, and I wasn’t afraid to fail.”

Behind the Scenes at Duke’s Student-Run Science Journal

By Nonie Arora

What do tuberculosis vaccines, water quality, and protein trafficking share in common? All may be featured in articles for the upcoming issue of Duke Science Review. I spoke with Matthew Draelos, co-editor-in-chief, and other publication team members.

Duke Science Review Publication. Credit: Nonie Arora

Duke Science Review Publication. Credit: Nonie Arora

Draelos explained that the Duke Science Review deals with broad topics with an emphasis on review articles and draws from the undergraduate, graduate, and professional school communities.

Draelos’s motivations for leading the Duke Science Review stem from his previous research experiences. Draelos worked in an undergraduate lab for four years at NC State University. There, he felt integrated into the publication process in the laboratory of Dr. Gavin Williams. At Duke, he is excited to have the opportunity to get involved in a student-run science journal and take on a leadership role.

His interest in science is focused on pharmaceutical development, particularly antibiotics. He has worked previously with enzymes called polyketide synthases, which are nature’s machinery for making antibiotics. He hopes to someday develop novel chemical solutions to unsolved medical problems.

Students learn about the publication process. Credit: Nonie Arora.

Students learn about the publication process. Credit: Nonie Arora.

“I think it’s important for students to publish their research primarily because in the current funding environment it’s publish or perish. This is increasingly true for young scientists. We must be able to write well, and the Duke Science Review establishes a risk-free forum for students to practice scientific writing,” Draelos commented.

A second reason he mentioned for enabling students to publish their work is that people spend considerable time and energy writing papers for courses, and a lot of that effort is wasted if only the professor is able to read their work. This journal is a way for people to spread their work to a larger audience and perhaps gain some additional recognition.

Lefko Charalambous, an editor for the journal, added that it is important to improve scientific communication and literacy in budding scientists. “It’s a way for us to appreciate what goes into producing a journal article and the reward from having it published at our age,” he said.

“We hope to enrich the scientific discourse, especially for freshmen and sophomores who are looking into scientific research and don’t know where to start,” Draelos said.

To submit an abstract for a potential report or article, check out their website.

Is the “Wizarding Gene” Dominant or Recessive?

By Nonie Arora

Dr. Spana explains the wizarding gene to eager students. Credit: Arnab Chatterjee

Dr. Spana explains the wizarding gene to eager students. Credit: Arnab Chatterjee

How do recessive alleles and the world of Harry Potter connect? Some students found out last week from Dr. Eric Spana, a faculty member in the Biology department.

He started off by explaining how a mutation in the MC1R (melanocortin 1 receptor) gene causes red hair in humans because of the way it affects a pigment called eumelanin. He added that MC1R is a recessive gene, and showed a pedigree of the Weasley family tree. Professor Spana pointed out that J. K. Rowling had gotten the genetics right. The Weasley clan has red hair and so does Harry’s daughter Lily. This makes sense because Harry must have a recessive allele for red hair since his mother, also Lily, had red hair. Whether this is intentional or just fortuitous casting, who can really say?

He then explained some potential retroactive genetic “crosses” that could be done to determine whether the “wizarding gene” was dominant or recessive. As a quick refresher, recessive alleles require both the mom and dad to pass on the same genetic sequence to the child for the condition to occur, while dominant alleles require only one copy.

According to Professor Spana, Step 1 was to check whether a witch and a muggle who mated ould produce a wizard. Indeed, this is possible, and the evidence is Seamus Finnigan, a half-blood wizard. Due to these results, the gene could still be dominant or recessive.

In Step 2, he explained, you mate a wizard to someone who could not have the wizarding gene. Fridwulfa, the giantess, married Mr. Hagrid, a wizard, to produce our beloved Rubeus Hagrid, who was a wizard. Since giants cannot have the wizarding gene, but Hagrid is still a wizard, the wizarding gene must be dominant!

Crowd of students ask provocative questions about squibs and recessive vs. dominant inheritance. Credit: Arnab Chatterjee

Crowd of students ask provocative questions about squibs and recessive vs. dominant inheritance. Credit: Arnab Chatterjee

You’ll have to stop by Dr. Spana’s office to ask him more about where muggle-borns and squibs come from. There’s a few different genetic explanations, and I encourage you to do some thinking and exploration.

Outside of his work on the genetics of Harry Potter, Dr. Spana also researches and teaches Genetics & Developmental Biology at Duke.

iGEM: An Exciting Way to Merge Biology and Engineering

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Duke iGEM 2014 team with faculty advisors Nick Buchler, front left, and Charlie Gersbach, front right. Mike is behind Dr. Gersbach.

by Anika Radiya-Dixit

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition is dedicated to education for students interested in the advancement of synthetic biology, in other words, taking engineering principles and applying them to natural sciences like biology.

Students in the competition explored using a gene or series of genes from E.coli bacteria to create biological devices for applications such as dissolving plastic or filtering water. In November 2014, the Duke iGEM team took part in the annual competition in Boston, proudly leaving with a gold medal on their work in 3D printing technology and DNA synthesis protocol.

This week, I contacted the iGEM team and had the opportunity to talk with one of the members, Mike Zhu, about his experience in the competition. Mike is currently a junior from Northern California studying Biomedical Engineering and Computer Science. He is enthusiastic about researching how biology and computer science interact, and is conducting research with Dr. John Reif on DNA technology. Mike is also involved with the Chinese Dance team, and enjoys cooking, eating, and sleeping. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.


How did you get interested in your project topic?

We wanted to build a binary response platform that uses logic gates or on-off switches in E. coli to make it easier to regulate genes. We used the CRISPr/Cas9 system that allows for specific targeting of any gene, and that enables synthetic biologists to create more complex gene circuits. Personally, I was interested in developing an infrastructure that allows engineering concepts to be applied to cells, such as creating code that allows cells to do arithmetic so they can keep track of the cells around them. I think applications like these open doors to a really cool field.


What was your best moment during the Boston competition?

The competition was four days long, but we had to come back early due to work and midterms, so we missed the last dance and dinner, but overall it was a lot of fun. There were multiple workshops and talks, and the one that stood out most to me was one by someone from MIT who designed a ‘biocompiler’ to take code specifying the behavior of cells [1]. It was essentially like creating a programming language for cells, and I thought that was really cool.

Tell me about someone interesting you met.

There were a lot of people from the industry who came by and asked about our project, and some of them wanted to recruit us for internships. At the competition, there were people from all over the world, and I liked best that they were friendly and genuinely interested in developing tools to work with cells.


Experiment work in a biology lab.

What was the hardest or most frustrating part of working on the project?

Lab work is always the most frustrating because you’re dealing with microscopic parts – things easily go wrong and it’s difficult to debug, so we ended up repeating the experiments over and over to work through it.

 Are you continuing with  the competition this year?

I’m working for Caribou Biosciences in Berkeley, one of the companies that wanted to recruit us during the competition. They are developing tech similar to what we did, so I enjoy that.

It’s a good thing to get into bioengineering. People are trying to make  tech cheaper and easier so we can potentially do experiments in our garage – sort of like ‘biohacking’ or do-it-yourself-biology – and this still has a long way to go, but it’s really cool.


Mike Zhu, wearing the competition shirt.

Now that you’ve gone through the competition, what would you like to say to future students who are interested in applying their knowledge of BME  learned at Duke?

There are a lot of clubs at Duke that are project-based, but these are primarily in Electrical Engineering or Mechanical Engineering, so the iGEM competition is – as far as I know – the only project-based club for students more interested in biology. You get funding, lab space, and mentors with a team of undergraduates who can work on a project themselves. It’s pretty rare for both PIs [Principal Investigators] to give the undergrads free reign to work on what they want, especially compared to volunteering in a lab. You also get a chance to present your project and meet up with other people, and you’re exposed to topics most students get to experience only in senior year classes. Overall, the club is a great way to be introduced to cutting edge research, and it’s a good opportunity for freshman to find out what’s going on in BME.

Learn More about the Duke iGEM team and project

[1] More about MIT’s Biocomplier can be read at


Synergizing Partnerships of the Heart

Guest post by Dharshini Subbiah

With diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes on the rise in Asia and throughout the world, six Duke University faculty made the trip to Singapore last week to be a part of the symposium, “Synergizing Biomedical Research in Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disorders.”

The symposium featured experts presenting their research related to the clustering of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia and cardiovascular disease — a global epidemic that is emerging as a major cause of mortality and human suffering in Asia.

A major objective of the meeting was to develop productive partnerships and collaborations to enhance research in the field. The Duke faculty were joined by colleagues from the Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School (Duke-NUS), SingHealth, A*Star, the National University of Singapore, the National University Health System, and the NTU Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.

“I dare say it would be difficult to go anywhere in the world and find a scientific program with the breadth and quality of what we’ve heard during this Symposium. After reflecting on the various presentations and what people are doing, I believe there are many potential areas where we can work together productively,” declared Duke-NUS Dean-designate Tom Coffman.

Professor Coffman, who for many years was the Chief of Nephrology at Duke University, was both optimistic and clear about his expectations, “I think it’s on us, to take advantage of the opportunities to bring together Duke and Singapore in order to harness our resources, talents and energy to do some great things. We can have a real impact in this area and improve what happens to our patients.”

The Symposium was held on January 19-20 and was the first in a series of activities marking the tenth year of Duke-NUS.


Working in concert for the future of medicine are researchers from Duke-NUS, SingHealth, A*Star, the National University of Singapore, the National University Health System, and the NTU Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine. Shown on the extreme left is Thomas Coffman, M.D., Director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at Duke Medicine.

Working in concert for the future of medicine are researchers from Duke-NUS, SingHealth, A*Star, the National University of Singapore, the National University Health System, and the NTU Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine. Shown on the extreme left is Thomas Coffman, M.D., Director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at Duke Medicine.

Microbiome Researchers Find Common Ground

Guest Post from John Rawls Ph.D.,  associate professor of molecular genetics and microbiology

Illustration by Timothy Cook

Illustration by Timothy Cook

Recent advances in genomic technology have led to spectacular insights into the complexity and ubiquity of microbial communities (the microbiome) throughout our planet, including on and within the human body.

The microbiome is now known to contribute significantly to human health and disease, regulate global biogeochemistry, and harbor much of our planet’s genetic diversity.

On November 21, 2014, more than 200 scientists, clinicians, engineers, and students gathered in the Trent Semans Center at the Duke University Medical Center to learn about cutting-edge microbiome research in an interdisciplinary symposium entitled “The Human and Environmental Microbiome.”

Reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of this exciting field, symposium participants represented a broad range of basic and clinical science departments at Duke  and other institutions across North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

John RawlsThe symposium showcased microbiomes in a wide diversity of habitats, including the body surfaces of humans and other animals, plant roots, soil, dust, freshwater streams, coastal waters, and in vitro systems.

Despite the diversity of their experimental systems, participants shared many of the same experimental approaches and methodologies.  For instance, microbial genomic sequencing was highlighted as a tool for understanding the life cycle of the parasites that cause malaria, as well as for identifying useful genes in symbiotic bacteria residing in the intestine.

Several abstracts presented at the symposium highlighted innovative new genetic and genomic approaches to understanding how microbial communities assemble and function, which could be widely applicable to other microbiomes.

In addition to shared methodologies, participants also reported on shared themes emerging from analysis of different microbiomes.  For example, analysis of a marine environment in response to acute weather perturbation revealed many of the same ecological patterns observed in the human gut microbiome during a cholera outbreak.

The symposium was organized by the Duke Center for Genomics of Microbial Systems (GeMS), which was established in 2012 to provide an intellectual environment that brings together investigators across Duke University wishing to apply genomic approaches to study basic aspects of microbial biology.

To learn more about GeMS activities and resources, you can join their email list by requesting a subscription on the GeMS website (